In ordinary language, the term crime denotes an unlawful act punishable by a state.[1] The term crime does not, in modern criminal law, have any simple and universally accepted definition,[2] though statutory definitions have been provided for certain purposes.[3] The most popular view is that crime is a category created by law (i.e. something is a crime if applicable law says that it is).[2] One proposed definition is that a crime, also called an offence or a criminal offence, is an act harmful not only to some individual, but also to the community or the state (a public wrong). Such acts are forbidden and punishable by law.[1][4]

The idea that acts like murder, rape and theft are prohibited exists all around the world.[5] What precisely is a criminal offence is defined by criminal law of each country. While many have a catalogue of crimes called the criminal code, in some common law countries no such comprehensive statute exists.

The state (government) has the power to severely restrict one’s liberty for committing a crime. Therefore, in modern societies, a criminal procedure must be adhered to during the investigation and trial. Only if found guilty, the offender may be sentenced to punishment such as community sentence, imprisonment, life imprisonment or, in some jurisdictions, even death.

To be classified as a crime, the act of doing something bad (actus reus) must be usually accompanied by the intention to do something bad (mens rea), with certain exceptions (strict liability).[4]

While every crime violates the law, not every violation of the law counts as a crime. Breaches of private law (torts and breaches of contract) are not automatically punished by the state, but can be enforced through civil procedure.


When informal relationships and sanctions prove insufficient to establish and maintain a desired social order, a government or a state may impose more formalized or stricter systems of social control. With institutional and legal machinery at their disposal, agents of the State can compel populations to conform to codes and can opt to punish or attempt to reform those who do not conform.

Authorities employ various mechanisms to regulate (encouraging or discouraging) certain behaviors in general. Governing or administering agencies may for example codify rules into laws, police citizens and visitors to ensure that they comply with those laws, and implement other policies and practices that legislators or administrators have prescribed with the aim of discouraging or preventing crime. In addition, authorities provide remedies and sanctions, and collectively these constitute a criminal justice system. Legal sanctions vary widely in their severity; they may include (for example) incarceration of temporary character aimed at reforming the convict. Some jurisdictions have penal codes written to inflict permanent harsh punishments: legal mutilation, capital punishment or life without parole.

Usually a natural person perpetrates a crime, but legal persons may also commit crimes. Conversely, at least under U.S. law, nonpersons such as animals cannot commit crimes.[6]


The word crime is derived from the Latin root cernō, meaning “I decide, I give judgment”. Originally the Latin word crīmen meant “charge” or “cry of distress.”[8] The Ancient Greek word krima (κρίμα), from which the Latin cognate derives, typically referred to an intellectual mistake or an offense against the community, rather than a private or moral wrong.[9]

In 13th century English crime meant “sinfulness”, according to It was probably brought to England as Old French crimne (12th century form of Modern French crime), from Latin crimen (in the genitive case: criminis). In Latin, crimen could have signified any one of the following: “charge, indictment, accusation; crime, fault, offense”.

The word may derive from the Latin cernere – “to decide, to sift” (see crisis, mapped on Kairos and Chronos). But Ernest Klein (citing Karl Brugmann) rejects this and suggests *cri-men, which originally would have meant “cry of distress”. Thomas G. Tucker suggests a root in “cry” words and refers to English plaint, plaintiff, and so on. The meaning “offense punishable by law” dates from the late 14th century. The Latin word is glossed in Old English by facen, also “deceit, fraud, treachery”, [cf. fake]. Crime wave is first attested in 1893 in American English.


One can view criminalization as a procedure deployed by society as a pre-emptive, harm-reduction device, using the threat of punishment as a deterrent to anyone proposing to engage in the behavior causing harm. The State becomes involved because governing entities can become convinced that the costs of not criminalizing (through allowing the harms to continue unabated) outweigh the costs of criminalizing it (restricting individual liberty, for example, to minimize harm to others).

Criminalization may provide future harm reduction at least to the outside population, assuming those shamed or incarcerated or otherwise restrained for committing crimes start out more prone to criminal behaviour. Likewise, one might assume[original research?] that criminalizing acts that in themselves do not harm other people (“victimless crimes“) may prevent subsequent harmful acts (assuming that people “prone” to commit these acts may tend to commit harmful actions in general). Some[who?] see the criminalization of “victimless crimes” as a pretext for imposing personal, religious or moral convictions on otherwise productive citizens or taxpayers.

Some commentators[who?] may[original research?] see criminalization as a way to make potential criminals pay or suffer for their prospective crimes. In this case, criminalization becomes a way to set the price that one must pay to society for certain actions considered detrimental to society as a whole. An extreme view might see criminalization as State-sanctioned revenge.

States control the process of criminalization because:

  • Even if victims recognize their own role as victims, they may not have the resources to investigate and seek legal redress for the injuries suffered: the enforcers formally appointed by the State often have better access to expertise and resources.
  • The victims may only want compensation for the injuries suffered, while remaining indifferent to a possible desire for deterrence.[16]
  • Fear of retaliation may deter victims or witnesses of crimes from taking any action. Even in policed societies, fear may inhibit from reporting incidents or from co-operating in a trial.
  • Victims, on their own, may lack the economies of scale that could allow them to administer a penal system, let alone to collect any fines levied by a court.[17] Garoupa & Klerman (2002) warn that a rent-seeking government has as its primary motivation to maximize revenue and so, if offenders have sufficient wealth, a rent-seeking government will act more aggressively than a social-welfare-maximizing government in enforcing laws against minor crimes (usually with a fixed penalty such as parking and routine traffic violations), but more laxly in enforcing laws against major crimes.
  • As a result of the crime, victims may die or become incapacitated.

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